The public has a right to know who is paying for advertising for politicians who put themselves before the public in election cycles. And I believe that it is in the interest of the community and the larger political audience to know exactly what a station has earned in an election campaign cycle and to know who purchased those ads.
Local television news can be a powerful force within a community, especially when it is financially strong. According to several Pew studies, even in these days of media dislocation and change, local television remains a strong player as a reliable source of information to which the public turns for news about their world.
I worked in television news for 25 years, and often felt that I was the modern equivalent of the town crier charged with keeping the audience up to date on the events of the day. I was brought up in a tradition of broadcasting as a public service. From my earliest years, at television stations run by companies such as the Washington Post Co., I was imbued with a strong ethical foundation of newsgathering practices and understood the responsibility of informing the public in a timely manner.
It was always easier to live up to those ethics when the economy was strong and the news station profitable. I believe it is in our nation’s interest to have broadcasters that are strong economic players, and it is my bias to keep local broadcasting independent, vital and financially robust.
As a new dean at one of America’s foremost schools of journalism, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s School of Journalism and Mass Communication, and as someone focused on the transformations in the news business, I am acutely aware that policies must be established that reflect the changes in how people consume news; the availability of information via various platforms; and the value of transparency in this Internet age.
The First Amendment has always promoted the importance of, and need for, access to information for a democracy, establishing for us the highest constitutional protection that the United States government has to offer. Implicit in these protections is a citizen’s right to know and understand. Today, making information available is easier than ever, and it is incumbent upon news organizations to make their involvement transparent in the critical democratic processes for the welfare of our citizens.
I write today to underline one key question before the FCC: the right of the public to know who is paying for advertising for politicians who put themselves before the public in election cycles. America has debated the role of money in politics for the past few decades. Many thought the question of campaign finance reform had been answered when the McCain-Feingold bill was passed in the last decade, which limited the amount of money groups could spend on national elections.
The Supreme Court in its decision, Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, ruled differently. Rather than see the campaign finance law as a legitimate regulation, the court ruled that the law was unconstitutional and prevented free speech. We now operate under that law and political advertising is robust. In the current 2012 election cycle, the airwaves in primary states have been alive with advertising for and against candidates.
In late 2011 and early 2012, the Iowa caucus cycle produced 24/7 campaign ads, and some reports indicate that local television broadcasters in the state earned $18 million in campaign advertising. That is a strong cycle and a boon for stations usually dependent on car dealers, supermarkets and hardware companies for their usual advertising dollar.
With my opening premise about the power of local news serving a community, I begrudge that windfall not at all. I do, however, believe that it is in the interest of the community and the larger political audience to know exactly what a station has earned in an election campaign cycle and to know who purchased those ads. Transparency is the issue here.
Years ago, when I was reporting on politics regularly in Washington, where political reporting is the “home sport,” I could discover many facts and details of an election, but never the campaign advertising take of my employer. Those figures were not public record (and off-limits to even those working for the station). It was a hole in my reporting and always seemed rather short of the “public service” mark that permeated all other work within the company.
Making information, campaign contributors and the amount of revenue that is incurred with each cycle available to the public would not compromise the business profitability of a station. It would, however, serve the public.
Trust remains the critical glue in any news organization with its public. That trust has been sorely tested in the last dozen years with scandals, entertainment news broadcasts and cutbacks. Broadcasting associations’ knee-jerk reactions to less regulation and anti-transparency appeals, I believe, is short-sighted and frays the dwindling trust they maintain. That trust must be rebuilt if local news organizations are to thrive and grow in a changing world.
The Internet will not replace the role of the local broadcaster in the community. It will, however, change some of the practices. Transparency is now easily affordable and the coin of the Internet realm. The FCC must stand for that value and ask only that broadcasters offer the body politic the insight into the “who,” “what” and “how much” is contributed in an advertising cycle in a campaign year.
Susan King is dean and the John Thomas Kerr Distinguished Professor of the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. This commentary was submitted to the FCC as a comment in the FCC rulemaking proposing to require stations to post online political advertising information. It is posted here with permission. King’s journalism career included stints with ABC News, CBS News and NBC News as well as TV stations in Buffalo, N.Y., and Washington.